Read: In the Plex, by Steven Levy

As I read Inside Apple earlier this year I was thinking I should perhaps read In the PlexSteven Levy‘s book about Google, to see what the differences were between the two Silicon Valley behemoths.

Differences?! What did I think?! I was so wrong, and the mistake has its roots in a faulty interpretation of what the different companies stand for. Google is generally perceived as being pro open source and driven by science and innovation while Apple is viewed as closed and introverted, dominated by its Leader – most of the speculations surrounding Jobs’ demise centred on how Apple would be able to hold on to its place now the Man was gone.

In truth the picture Levy paints shows how similar Apple and Google is. The only real difference is Google’s belief that engineering excellence will solve the problem – any problem – while what has made Apple so big is a belief in simplicity. The belief of each is Belief, though, with a capital B; zealous like religious fanatics. Both companies also has grown big under almost despotic leaders – leaders who either vouch for everything or impose counter-productive rules or (dis)organisation and thus slowing down the organisation.

Reading In the Plex only underscore my experiences from a life of watching people and organisations, analysing drivers, incentive models, management models and corporate/organisational culture and society; there are so many flavours of humans out there there’s people suited for almost every kind of enterprise; it is when the leaders are indecisive, or when they stray from the path, that people starts to leave for real.

It has led me to think that successful companies are successful because of a) a distinct idea easily converted into Belief or a Creed, paired with b) strong leadership, and c) timing (or luck – chose what suits you). What specific decision a company make hasn’t any significance for the company – it is the strength with which the decision is enforced, and the dedication showed by the leadership towards the decision, that will make the REAL difference. To me as a person decision (a) OR (b) might make me stay on or leave but for the company as a whole the unity and conviction is more important.

Levy’s book reinforces this notion.

But it also asks the question of what really drives science. The decisions made by Google are said to always be based on facts rather than on prejudice, wishful thinking, fear, and whim. This is extremely unusual. In the corporate world the politics of career and personal gain rule the day, placing reason and facts not even in the back seat but the trunk. From what Levy describes Google indeed rule by facts and numbers; but who decide what numbers to look at, what facts to pursue? One of the early curators of what is known as the scientific method, Robert Hooke, famously went by instinct rather than “facts” – at least that is how I read Stephen Inwood’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – and reading In the Plex brings Inwood’s book to the fore; to what extent is facts fact? Who chooses? Against what cultural backdrop?

Personally I suspect much of the “science” of Google is mightily influenced by what might be labelled an US elite university ethos, and ameliorated by nothing much. Placing the Android User Interface guidelines besides the iOS Human Interface guidelines only emphasises this – one is driven by number-counting artisans, the other by despotic artistry, but both are driven by principle. Despite what they say to the public other humans doesn’t matter much, either way, as long as they buy the product.

Adherents to the Church of Google might object by pointing to the many innovations that has been born out of the famed “20%” – every employee can use 20% of his or her time for personal projects. But no such project gets big unless one or both founders puts his stamp on it and getting the approval of someone who systematically evades meetings and makes a point of not being open for appointments is not easy; which means employees must be persistent indeed to succeed – Levy describes how employees learnt to stalk or ambush to get the sought-after approval, spending time and energy on finding out where Page or Brin might show up next instead of doing productive work.

How this in any way is better than a defined process, I wonder.

Also, the famed 20% are often time outside ordinary work time, despite what is said, and presumably Google will own both the code, the idea, and eventual patents deriving from the project.

What that makes of the objection I leave to you to decide.

An interesting read, even if lacking somewhat in the editing department – sometimes the text felt like it had been published before, as a series of articles (which indeed is in part the case), without the proper check for consistency as the articles were merged with the book proper.

Recommended to those who work in the IT, internet and computer industries, and to business management people.


Reread: Unseen Academicals, Going Postal, and Night Watch, and Read: Snuff, all by Terry Pratchett

Coinciding with the start of the Uefa Euro 2012 Finals I decided to give Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals a second try. I didn’t like it very much the first time around but even back then I thought part of that might be because of the format – I chose to listen to it, rather than read it.

So, it was with some trepidation I opened it up for the first chapter. And instantly I realised that I remembered absolutely nothing of the book – nothing.  This was no loss because of all the Discworld world novels that I’ve read – which is practically everyone – this is definitely one of the weakest.

Normally I have no problems with multiple viewpoints but in this case the end result is a  lot of chop and no real storyline, as far as I can discern. A bit of fun for the football pieces and a bit of message regarding tolerance and human value/rights (or orc rights), nothing more.

Despite this I felt it had been a long time since I last read some good Discworld, and as I’ve reread the earlier ones multiple times already I decided to reread something that I hadn’t already reread before.

This, and the fact that I have since gained some insight into the Swedish Post, made me chose Going Postal.

I remember not being too fond of it but this time around I found it rather fun, even if quaint. Now, in 2012, the issue is not so much the internet versus the old letter-carrying post but rather the other theme; that of robber capitalism and its disregard for humans and for long term businesses. The arch-capitalist Reacher Gilt of Going Postal may be a parody but as most good parodies there’s a core of truth in there – a con man, through and through.

A much more funny book than Unseen Academicals, even if not top notch Pratchett either. And in search for the Fun in Discworld I read yet another one, this time a much reread favourite – Night Watch.

Did it hold up to time?

Yes, and no. The book is darker than those that had come before it, but it also heralded something new – a change in tone; a grittier Discworld. The story uses the Time Machine Ploy, albeit sans machine as such, to take us to a pre-Vetinari Ankh-Morpork where we meet the effects a paranoid and brutal leader has on society. Sent back 30 years in time Sam Vimes is forced to masquerade as “John Keel” as a younger version of himself is already there. To be able to go back he needs to ride out a historic event that saw the original Keel dead. Will he manage? (Of course he will, there’s never any real doubt!)

A highlight, to me, is meeting the young Vetinari, his aunt, and future Guild leaders. Verdict? I still like the book but somehow the story feels kind of empty of real meaning.

Which takes me to Snuff, which I purchased lately. The books following Night Watch persuaded me to give up on Discworld; I did not like Monstrous Regiment, I thought the politics too in your face, Thud! was a dud, the others so and so. Unseen Academicals was the final nail in the coffin – I haven’t touched anything Discworld for many years. Too many books out there, waiting to get read, to spend time reading things you don’t enjoy.

But. I confess. I made the wrong decision. Snuff is GOOD! Overt politics, yes (about slavery, and about not bending to your “superiors”, because they aren’t) but also better written and better told than Unseen Academicals. We get to meet /yet another/ race subject to exploitation – the goblins – as Sam Vimes is grudgingly sent on vacation at his, or rather his wife’s, ancestral rural estate. I guess there’s many a thing I miss out on, here, as I suspect the story is richly salted with scenes or almost-scenes from the British literary canon. For some reason I think Jane Austen but as I haven’t read any I really can’t know… but you get the idea, surely. It is wittily written, with the odd glimpse of old Discworld bizarre inserted, here and there, and so feels a bit like back to the old school.

Absolutely recommend it – both message AND fun!

However. Considering how Discworld have evolved over time it is possible to perceive a shift. Initially the characters were quirky and cartoonish. This fitted the format well – cartoonish is a good way to make fun and deliver a message at the same time. Many personas featuring in the classic revue is just that – caricatures illustrating the bizarre or weird of the commonplace or present-day “common sense”.

But by now in Discworld-verse some of the people that we meet have left the power of the author and started to form their own independent lives. Copper Vimes is a family father, Vetinari is losing his thoughts over a musical performance, Ridcully is smart. Step by step allegory and comic effect has been put aside, in favour of a written sitcom where we, book by book, revisit old acquaintances rather than get a look in the mirror. The sitcom might be political, or at least topical, but still more of a cosy than a releasing laugh over the idiocies or our time.

Perhaps this is just me, perhaps it reflects the author’s relationship with his characters,perhaps it illustrates how the fantasy genre has changed over time. But good or bad the quirkiness that was the hallmark of Discworld is gone.

I guess it wasn’t possible to sustain it, and perhaps the mess that is Unseen Academicals is a showcase for why it shouldn’t even be tried. In that case, R.I.P., and thanks for all those good times.

Is the importance of books a short interlude in our history?

I’m a bit jaded. I’ve seen technologies come and go, and after having invested time and effort into them I have lived to see most of them fade away. This have meant I’m not too keen on ‘new’ things. Not that I’m not interested, or curious. But most things I have seen before.

The difference now is, of course, there’s a critical mass. Places like LinkedIn and Facebook, services like Yammer and Twitter – they only grow important and inevitable if enough people uses them. And in western society of today, enough people have made the transition into the digital age to make those places viable.

The internet is perceived as a fast medium. Books is a slow medium, and TV is in between. Are books on the loosing end of this equation? Will books loose the importance they have had in conveying knowledge and ideas, historically?

These are some of my thoughts –

As long as people have been able to write written documents have been of some import. Used for to keep count of things, but also for poetry and political diatribe (a favourite in most ‘civilized’ societies, it seems!) and to document knowledge and theories. But prior to the advent of the printing press, books where both written and bound by hand, and very much one off. Rich people paid to have copies made, and the copies varies between them – bits and pieces shorn off or added so to ring true to current ideas and policies. Despite this books made a difference. Through books concepts of arithmetic and medicine got introduced to western Europe. Books, in a more conceptual way, because they are often scrolls, also was used to shape history. Hagiographies and biographies was used to reshape past events, and as those documents are what survived our sources are skewed. I’d argue that this was the intent, and in many ways they have proved successful.

Anyway, in more recent times books have had some impact. Think of The origin of the Species, which have affected us whether we think the earth is 4000 years old or if we think we and the world around us have evolved for millennia. There are, of course, more recent examples. This is not the place to name them – the list is huge and contains different books depending on culture and geography.

Today fewer and fewer read. The publishing houses are, on an international level, consolidating, meaning a handful of people decide what will get printed or not (Sweden, on the contrary, have a lot of small independent publishers). Ideas are conveyed via the internet and TV, and are so many most of us have no means of sorting or organizing the stuff in anything resembling a coherent picture. Some may argue that we are leaving the printed word for a more oral/visual culture.

If I may I’d say that if so we are only returning to what we left when we started to commit ink to paper (or papyrus or whatever). Humankind survived through millennia before we started to make markings more linguistically coherent than cave paintings.

Are we going backwards? Or are we leaving an intermediate state, to return to a way of communicating more consistent with ourselves as human beings?

I for one think books will continue to be important. In some contexts not HOW MANY but WHO and WHAT are the important factors. Books for pure entertainment? That will, regrettably, be a diminishing niche. Or so I think.

Thanks to my friends at The Green Dragon, and especially to JPB who brought this up (“Is the age of “writers shaping culture” over?”) (even if it wasn’t originally intended to take the turn it did. But that’s the way with discussions, so only to be expected!)